Luke Rockhold returned to form with a spectacular destruction of the dangerous Costas Philippou on Wednesday night. Afterward, Rockhold announced his desire for a bout with Michael Bisping and a rematch with Vitor Belfort.
Challenging Bisping is a win-win. He'll sell the fight for you, it's almost guaranteed to be the co-main event, and Bisping will be returning from a long layoff due to injury and might not regain anything like his form in previous bouts.
If you want attention, call out someone you'll never have to fight: Roy Jones or someone in a different weight class. If you want to call out someone and actually fight him, someone coming off a layoff is the best bet because he will engage you in Twitter beef just to keep his name in the spotlight.
But enough of my cynicism. Let's talk about Rockhold's showing on Wednesday and the question of Belfort.
What Did Rockhold Show Us Against Philippou?
Luke Rockhold looked sublime at Fight Night 35 as he walked down Philippou, kept the Cyprian along the cage and generally looked like he was the boss. Philippou's sole notable moment of offence came as he lunged in at Rockhold, and the latter skipped back with a tight southpaw right hook in counter that dropped Philippou.
This is just standard Rockhold. He backs his opponent toward the fence, and if he circles to his left, Rockhold throws the round kick. If his opponent circles right, he throws the back kick, and if he comes forward, Rockhold moves back and throws the counter right hook.
Using John Madden-esque draw-on-screen technology, here is Rockhold in a nutshell.
- Opponent circles to his own right, Rockhold intercepts with left round kick.
- Opponent circles to his own left, Rockhold intercepts with left back kick.
- Opponent rushes Rockhold, Rockhold retreats (leading with left foot) and throws counter right hook.
Rockhold does different stuff in bouts, obviously, but most good offensive fighters have a technique they favour in response to one direction of movement. We could do the same thing in breaking down the techniques of Matt Brown, Jon Jones or Anthony Pettis.
Back to that counter right hook. Rockhold showed it to Philippou seven or eight times in flinching and making it clear that this was his intended counter before Philippou actually committed. Philippou finally committed anyway and ate the hook.
From there on it was all downhill for Philippou as he was almost always backed into the fence and ate hard kicks to the body (including a kick once he hit the ground) that ended the bout.
Has Rockhold improved? Maybe. But he was given the type of fight he likes. Rockhold was the aggressor, and any time his opponent came forward, it was slow enough that Rockhold could back straight up the same way and throw his counter right hook.
The Standard Method of Troubling Belfort
Now Belfort isn't a strategic magician. He comes in on a straight line and doesn't really move his head, but his form is crisp and he's as fast as anyone in the business.
If you back straight up against Belfort, you're going to have a really bad time. It is not worth risking getting hit by one punch, then another one and then more just to try and land a good countershot on someone who is fast enough to tighten up openings through speed alone.
What is needed to beat Belfort is a fighter who is able to step off that line of attack. Even Anderson Silva, who loves that retreating right hook that is Rockhold's forte, had to leave this line to escape Belfort.
Here is Jon Jones leaving the line in his own way with the same effect. Belfort can only punch fast enough to leave no openings and overwhelm folks for so long, and he has a habit of mentally shutting down when the fight isn't going his way. Sidestepping his rushes cannot be overstated; it is vital for anyone fighting against him to be able to pivot off like this.
The other thing that does Belfort in is facing a fighter who can jam his charges with a stiff kick.
We're not talking a lazy teep just to tick a box—the kind you'll occasionally see Urijah Faber attempt—but instead a Jon Jones side kick, or the back kick that Kazushi Sakuraba broke Belfort down with a decade earlier. Belfort can keep getting better at what he does, but as long as it is coming in on a straight line, the same stuff will always be the key.
Distance is the key against Belfort, but if you have no means of keeping it, he's just going to swarm all over you.
Does Rockhold Have It in Him?
Fighting as he does now? Probably not.
Not an awful lot had happened in the first fight between Belfort and Rockhold before the huge spinning kick landed and ended the bout, but enough had happened to show that Belfort is a nightmare matchup for Rockhold.
Rockhold came out and did his usual bigger-man part, attempting to pressure Belfort toward the fence. Belfort might not be varied in his offence, but he knows how to circle out. Where Costas Philippou was backing himself onto the cage from the start last night, Belfort was having none of it. Rockhold was visibly stifled within the opening minute of the bout.
Rockhold couldn't pressure Belfort toward the fence and make him circle into kicks, and the more Belfort circled away from Rockhold's left leg, the more clueless Rockhold looked.
By the two-minute mark, Rockhold was willing to shoot a takedown from far too great a distance to do anything of use, and then he was on the fence himself. Before he knew it, Rockhold was between Belfort and the fence with nowhere to go (as he always moves straight backward) and ate the wheel kick that put him to sleep.
With all that being said, Rockhold does have the tools necessary to give Belfort fits—he just doesn't like to use them so much as his usual methods.
On the subject of sidestepping the rush, Rockhold was able to reverse positions on Belfort nicely during one of Belfort's attempts at a flurry along the fence. This, more than attempting to back straight up, is the way to defuse the horrible danger of getting caught on the end of a Belfort flurry.
Rockhold also showed a nice back kick that Belfort ate in the bread basket as Belfort continued to circle toward it through the fight.
But Rockhold threw it once. Sakuraba had incredible success with long back kicks in this manner against Belfort a decade ago, and since he's such a hyper-aggressive fighter, they work just as well on him now. Jones' stumping of Belfort came from keeping "The Phenom" at the end of his leg and winding him with kicks as well.
To conclude, Rockhold has shown the technical components necessary to be a stylistic nightmare for Belfort. Unfortunately, Rockhold's preferred method of fighting is just unlikely to cut it against Belfort. Beating fighters who will engage you exactly the way you want them to is not showing improvement—it just shows that you're still good at what you always were good at.